Music

Laurie Anderson under-the-radar

An exclusive interview with the visionary artist and music legend

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“Know who I am?... ‘Good Bye Mister’ is my name...‘Wind and Dust’ is my name . . . ‘Never Happened’ is my name . . .” — William S. Burroughs, from “The Ticket That Exploded”

One of the things artist Laurie Anderson said in an early morning interview Friday (June 23) was she never reads what is written about her. This means the contents of this interview will never reach her eyes and she will never know or get bogged down in the details of this conversation. She will never judge if the words here reflect what she actually said.

Just because she’ll never read it doesn’t change how she answered the questions of this interview. The past has now become something as mutable as documentation, memory, or lack of it. Anderson only seems to look into the future very slightly and has wholly put her attention on the here and now.

The details of her previous visits to Taos are as vague in her memory as some of her answers to our questions might seem to the uninitiated. The details, or lack of them, are as in character with the cipher of who she is and what she’s doing right now. And now, she doesn’t have to really be saddled with the baggage of the past.

Anderson is an artist that defies definition. A sculptor, musician, art historian, writer, speaker and more, people have used the term multi-media artist to describe her. In interviews, she has found the term “multi-media” amusing and vague, but her advice to any young artist is to be as vague and unspecific as possible when cornered.

Anderson’s ascent began in the late 1970s and early 1980s and especially with her groundbreaking single,” O Superman,” backed with “Walk the Dog.” That cemented her status as the avant-garde performance artist who was tapping into the new digital revolution with her use of electronic instruments, MIDI, images, and words as part of her performance and presentation, and the use of words in a context that seemed both empty and packed with meaning.

We had an opportunity to sit down with Anderson and ask her a few questions at the home of Mirabai Starr. She said she had visited the Lama Foundation in the distant past and she was curious about what was happening up there and with the 50th anniversary celebration of Lama, she decided to visit again. And, just for clarity’s sake, she is not planning a performance here. Anderson’s visit was under-the-radar, so to speak.

Tempo: What projects are you working on now?

Laurie Anderson: I just finished a book called, “All The Things I Lost in the Flood,” which will be out in the fall. It’s a series of essays on language and how it’s used in a visual context. I also just finished a big exhibition in a place called MASS MoCa, which is a big museum [of contemporary art] in Massachusetts — that’s a VR [virtual reality] installation, big paintings. That’s an interesting project because they gave five artists a huge amount of space for the next 15 years so we rotate our work over time. We’ll see what happens. Jim Terrell, whose work I really love with light; Louise Bourgeois; Bob Rauschenberg; Jenny Holzer; and I are the artists. So we have these huge spaces and it’s kind of intimidating but kind of fun. I’m working with VR which is about disembodiment. That’s a subject I’ve been interested in for some time – probably more than anything else. This is true of music – to lose yourself completely and the same with meditation. It’s the sense of being able to be free.

Tempo: What are your thoughts about social media? How does it feel to see so much of what you talked about in the past, which is almost presaging things we see today. Do you participate in social media at all?

Anderson: I only do social media sort of second-hand because I’d get way too involved in it so I don’t do it. I prefer language that gets a little more in-depth than tweets. Although it is fun to see things like that getting thrown around that fast. But, I have an addictive personality, so I stay away from it. About 10 years ago, for example, I stopped reading anything written about me in any media, so I have no idea what’s written about me. My office does, but I don’t. It improved my life immensely not to hear anyone’s ideas about what they thought I was doing.

Tempo: What are your thoughts about memes and the idea of “language as a virus” (from Anderson’s 1986 album “Home of the Brave”) now that we’re involved in a culture that has a habit of distilling things down to meme-like structures and factoring in the lowest common denominators?

Anderson: What is that lowest common denominator?

Tempo: That’s always going to be zero – zero calories. Zero content.

Anderson: Like gossip? Well, I’m not sure it’s zero, actually. Things that go viral are things that have high emotional content and things that really interest people. For instance, gossip travels really fast. And that idea that language is a virus has always fascinated me – that language would be a disease – that a writer, William S. Burroughs, would identify language as a disease communicable by mouth seems like a strange thing. But on the other hand, this question of whether language is alive is not really the correct way to ask it. A virus is not alive. It’s not really alive. It’s an agent on the edge of life. Basic meanings can manipulate things without itself being changed. So, in a way that’s a good way to explain what language is. A series of codes and when things do go viral it has a lot to do with how a virus behaves in terms of replication and mimicry. The book “All the Things I Lost in the Flood” refers to Hurricane Sandy and how my archive got flooded and how I was devastated at first, but then, I was relieved. I have a list of those things so that was the jumping off point with language as a substitution. It’s a better expression of what those things were, anyway. But then, I’m someone who doesn’t believe we’re really sitting here.

Tempo: Do you see us as more like avatars?

Anderson: Not really. I guess you could think of it that way. But no, I don’t see it that way, but delusion becomes a part of it.

Tempo: In previous interviews, you talk about a result of your meditations being that you have determined it is better to experience sadness rather than to be sad.

Anderson: Mingyur Rinpoche advised us to practice the ability to feel sad rather than be sad. It’s worth trying to do that.

Tempo: Is joy to be approached with the same detachment?

Anderson: Uh-huh, yeah. But, with the caveat that we’re here to have fun.

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